Nike’s New Campaign: Social Justice Campaign or Smart Marketing?

The Nike swoosh is the most iconic logo of all time. Nike is a brand recognized and revered across the globe in a way that can only compare to McDonald’s arches, Coca-Cola’s script and Apple’s, well, apple. Now, Nike has catapulted into the national and global conversation on a remarkable scale – and not for its newest shoe launch. Yet, Nike’s new playbook is not exactly novel. Over the past two years, we’ve seen brands take oftentimes divisive stances on issues like refugees and immigrationracial equalitygun control - even going so far as to sue the President. Still, Nike may be arguably the largest and most omnipresent brand high jumping into the current social justice and political discourse. 

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Unless you haven’t signed onto social media, looked at any major news site or stood by a water cooler in the past three days, chances are, you’ve heard of Nike’s new 30th anniversary campaign for “Just Do It.” As well as the face of the campaign, Colin Kaepernick, and the controversy surrounding that decision. There are heaps of articles analyzing the campaign, its implications and fallout. We’ll keep it simple by overviewing why it works and what we’re waiting to see. 


Why It Works

While Nike’s new campaign may be groundbreaking, it’s in alignment with prior campaigns. This is not Nike’s first foray into edgy or controversial subjects – such as its support of Ric Munoz, an HIV positive marathon runner or the 1995 campaign in support of women’s rights. It’s certainly in sync with the more recent “Equality” campaign launched during the 2017 Grammy Awards. 

Nike also knows its core audience – two-thirds of which are under the age of 35 years old and are much more racially diverse than older generations. Not to mention the fact 99 percent of NFL players support Kaepernick. And our own research shows that consumers expect brands to take stands. In fact, 78 percent of Americans expect companies to stand up for important social justice issues – this number spikes to 84 percent among Millennials. 

Finally, Nike has had many major celebrities be the face of its marketing efforts, from Michael Jordon to Derek Jeter, but this choice was deliberate to make a splash and turn heads. And it worked. The campaign has already garnered $163 million in buzz for Nike and pushed social brand mentions up 135 percent, clocking in at more than 2.7 million mentions since Monday (and counting). And although Nike’s stock took an initial dip, it may be back on the rise, increasing .94 as of Thursday morning.


What We're Waiting to See

Most media agree that by recommitting to its endorsement of Kaepernick, Nike has in effect “endorsed” Kaepernick’s mission either directly or indirectly. It is being regarded as a bold social justice and activist campaign. But rather than dive deep into Kaepernick’s fight for justice, last night’s two-minute spot that aired during Thursday Night Football stays close to Nike’s traditional marketing. The ad features Kaepernick and a slew of other athletes persevering over great odds to achieve “crazy” dreams – from well-known athletes like Serena Williams who went from the courts of Compton to become “the greatest athlete ever” to Charlie Jabaley, who lost 120 pounds and overcame a brain tumor to become an Ironman athlete. The ad closes with Kaepernick declaring “It’s only crazy until you do it. Just Do It.” That’s straight-forward Nike marketing.

Our research has shown that when a brand takes a stand, nearly two-thirds (65%) of Americans will do research to see if it is being authentic. And although Nike has stated it will donate money to Kaepernick’s “Know Your Rights” camp, chances are, Nike will be held accountable to show how it is delivering on its support of individuals who “dream crazy.” In fact, consumers are already questioning Nike’s intentions – one study from Morning Consult shows Americans are split on motivations behind the campaign. While 32 percent believe the announcement is mostly an effort to recognize Colin Kaepernick’s actions, 38 percent believe it is mostly a stunt to gain publicity, another 30 percent say they don’t know. In the coming weeks and months, we’ll be looking for proof beyond the marketing campaign – including partnerships, advocacy programs and new ways Nike is empowering people to take a stand on issues that matter. We’re looking for the marathon, rather than the sprint.

While Nike’s move may have resulted in burned shoes and torn socks, the choice was deliberate, and fallout expected. Yet, Kaepernick’s initial post launching the campaign articulates Nike’s position clearly, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” Nike has entered the social justice foray in a big way and while it may lose some fans along the way, it clearly believes the sacrifice is worth it.